I set my briefcase on my gritty kitchen counter and traced the raised gold lettering on the thick ivory card. “You are Invited to a Holiday Cookie Party,” the note read. The invitation was from a fascinating, creative, high–powered executive I had met several months ago. I was surprised and thrilled that she had invited me to such a gathering.
Each woman would bring a batch of home-baked cookies, she wrote. We would then get to sample all the cookies and bring a bag of treats home to our families. I adored the idea of getting to bring my teenage daughters such an array of home-baked sweets. I envisioned a room filled with charming baskets of star-shaped sugar cookies, generously topped with red or green frosting. I imagined a jolly basket of Santa cookies and a fragrant ginger-scented array of reindeer cookies. I fantasized about thumbprint cookies, shaped like snowflakes and gooey with jam, and about silky buttery sandies melting in my mouth. And…
Then I realized the implication; these holiday cookies would not only need to be beautiful, creative, and delicious, they would need to be presented in festive and unusual ways. I had never really made anything other than the occasional clumpy chocolate chip, peanut butter, or oatmeal cookie. Why hadn’t my mother been a more glamorous baker, I fretted, as I rummaged in the refrigerator for something to make for dinner. She only made the plainest of cookies—date crumbs, peanut butter, and chocolate chip. As I boiled water for pasta and heated up the jar of marinara sauce, a number floated into my head and I dialed it.
“If I go to this party, will you help me with a recipe and a cute idea for presenting the cookies?” I asked my friend Judith, who was graced with five-star baking abilities.
“Of course,” she said. Judith’s aplomb would fit right in at such a gathering. Briefly, I wondered if she could attend in my place and just deliver my treats to me.
I told my daughters the good news—in several weeks we would have our own private holiday cookie festival. Since our sweets were usually made by some giant corporate entity, they were ultra-excited.
A week later, I received a thick packet in the mail. Judith had selected a number of “easy” recipes for me. I smiled as I looked over the pictures of adorable cookies with a cute holiday twist. I frowned as I read through the baking instructions; each cookie demanded its own specialized pan, gourmet tool, thermometer, or esoteric ingredient.
As the day of the cookie party neared, I had no recipe, no cookies, no plan, and nothing good to wear.
That night at dinner, I said, “I don’t think I can go to the party.”
“Why not?” Sarah said sharply. She was thirteen and took promises and plans very seriously. Plus, she had a highly sophisticated taste for sweets and was looking forward to expanding her repertoire.
“I can’t just walk in carrying a paltry tray of blobby looking chocolate chip cookies.” My throat constricted and I wished I were a mother who could whip up a butterscotch soufflé from ingredients that just happened to be in my kitchen cabinets.
“Why not?” my older daughter Jessica said. Even during the holiday season, she kept to her black-themed wardrobe. She looked Gothic and serious as she said, “Everyone else will be all silver bells and fancy sprinkles. You will represent the good old- fashioned approach to the holidays; your simplicity will be refreshing.”
I took a breath and considered her words. If worse came to worse, I could always pretend I never saw those cookies before in my life.
That evening, my daughters and I made chocolate chip cookies and put them in a tin lined with aluminum foil. In honor of the season, I unearthed a shiny red bow to top the tin.
Walking into the party was like walking into a fairyland. Christmas lights lined the windows and a sparkling tree spread its branches into the living room. The dining room table looked like the December cover of Gourmet magazine. Stars, hearts, Christmas trees, snowmen, all the icons of the season were glowing with icing and sprinkles. Some cookies were nestled in hand-made wreathes. Others shone from star-shaped or tree shaped boxes. A miniature set of reindeer surrounded a bejeweled fruitcake. A galaxy of colorful star-shaped cookies decorated a tiered silver-server. I admired each display while looking for a quiet corner where I could tuck in my tin of chocolate chips. I finally settled them between candy cane cookies and gingerbread Santa’s.
My hostess offered me champagne and the conversation flowed. Then she announced, “It’s time to gather the cookies.” She had a large silver gift sack for each of us and encouraged us to take several of each cookie. As I toured the table, I sneaked a look at my humble confection. What if no one took any? What if I had to bring the whole batch home? What if… The doubts daunted me as I filled my sack with delectables.
“Who made the chocolate chip cookies?” someone asked. The room quieted and my breath quickened. As the silence spread, I finally said, “I did.”
“What an interesting idea,” someone said.
“I never would have thought of it. It’s comforting. These cookies remind me of my mother and home.”
I smiled as I put three Santas in my sack and headed for the reindeer.
That evening my daughters and I had a magnificent holiday feast, consisting of cookies, cookies, and cookies.
“Here’s the strange thing, Mom,” Jessica said, as she leaned back, sated. “Your cookies are really just as good as any of them. Not as cute, but just as delicious.”
“More delicious,” Sarah said.
I smiled, thinking that about my mom’s cookies when I was growing up. Maybe there was something about the plain old recipes offered in the plain old way, so sturdy, so unglamorous, and yet so deliciously like coming home.
Here’s to a sweet holiday season!
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
When I walk through the doors of the nursing home, I find my mother in her wheelchair, right in front of the medication cart, right behind the central nursing station, where nurses, delivery people, staff and family members congregate. Mom is bent over, her baby doll lying across her lap. When I walk up to her, I ratchet up my energy and widen my smile. I am preparing to clown her into a reaction.
Later my father will ask if I think she recognized me.
“No,” I will have to tell him. “She did not recognize me. But she did smile.”
The smile is important.
My hand waving and head bobbing does its work: Mom does smile, and I can tell she is in her own current version of a good mood.
“Music in the dining room,” the activity board reads, so I wheel her in that direction. An elderly man with a red and white trimmed Santa hat passes us in the hallway.
“Look Mom, there’s Santa,” I tell her.
Having been brought up Jewish, Mom never was all that enthralled with the Claus mythology and she has not changed.
A white-haired woman is in the dining room, busily setting up for the music program. Several patients are already gathered. The woman takes out a microphone, a boom box, an illuminated plastic snowman, and a small silver bell. I continue wheeling Mom down the far corridor, liking the sense of companionship I have from this movement.
As we stroll, a nurse carrying a plate of lettuce walks past us.
“She must have been a good mother,” she says, nodding at the way Mom is holding the baby. “She must still be a good mother.”
“She is,” I say.
I have never really said to my mom, “You were a good mother.”
Now I realize she was.
I can see that Mom is enjoying the ride. She loved movement when she was younger and was far more adventuresome than Dad when it came to airplanes, ski lifts, fast cars, and speedy boats. For her, biting breeze across the face was thrilling, not threatening. Until she became a mother, that is. Then she abandoned her pleasure in the heights and speed and concentrated on making sure we were slow, safe, and centered.
We roll back into the dining room just as the show is ready to start. The singer, Thelda, kicks off her shoes and presses play on the boom box. Above the cheerful sound track, she sings Jingle Bells. She dances across the room with the remnants of ballroom steps. She stops in front of Mom and sings right to her. She gets on her knees, so she can look into Mom’s eyes, and keeps singing. Mom notices her and smiles a little.
Thelda moves on, singing to each of the patients gathered around, so intent on making a connection that she often forgets the words.
“Is it all right for your Mom to come to Christmas holiday events?” the activity director had asked me, when Mom moved from the memory care into the skilled care portion of the nursing home.
“Yes, I’d like her to go to any activities. She likes the extra energy.”
I think Mom would approve of my decision, even though she has never celebrated Christmas. Growing up, her immigrant mother held on to the Jewish spirit of her home, kneading dough for Friday evening challah, observing each holiday and prayer period in her own way. Some orthodox women followed the religious law that commanded a small piece of the dough be burned as an offering to God. My grandmother was poor; she did not believe in burning good food, regardless of tradition. So she sacrificed a portion of the dough to her youngest daughter, my mother Fran. She created a “bread tail,” leftover dough that she smeared with butter and sprinkled with sugar and baked. When Mom used to talk about her mother, she always mentioned this special treat.
Even when I was growing up, and we were the only Jewish family in our neighborhood, my mother still did not sing Christmas songs. She did not willingly go to Christmas parties. She let the holiday rush by her, like a large train, whooshing past, ruffling her hair and leaving her behind.
Now, I am singing Christmas carols to my Mom for the first time. She is smiling, though really not at me. But I am sitting beside her while she is smiling and that makes me happy. She has moved beyond the place where the religions are different, beyond the place where she wants to separate the dough and make a sacrifice for tradition. Her new tradition is anyone who can make her smile.
With each song, from White Christmas, to Silver Bells, to Frosty the Snowman, Thelda moves back to Mom, tapping her, nudging her, shaking a bell almost in her face, acting sillier and sillier. Each time, Mom lifts her head and widens her mouth for a second.
For her finale, Thelda puts on a big red nose and sings Rudolph. When she dances in front of Mom with that nose, Mom laughs. For several minutes, Mom stays fixated on the scarlet nose, her face a miracle in pure enjoyment. I laugh too, so delighted to see Mom engaged and absorbed. Then, Thelda dances away and Mom’s face glazes back over.
Two weeks from now, I will bring a menorah and candles into my mother’s room. My father and I will have a short Chanukah ceremony with Mom. She will pick at the shiny paper covering the Chanukah gelt (chocolate candy disguised as money). She will slump over in her chair. But she will come back to life when she sees me, her only daughter, wearing a big red nose as I light the menorah.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
Recently I’ve been collecting inspirational quotes that remind me to make the most of every day:
“Every day is an epic journey!” Diana Nyad, long-distance swimmer
“Play is a tool for social change,” Jessica Matthews, Uncharted Play
It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.” A.A. Milne
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Of course, one reason I’m focused on meaningful living is because I’m also thinking about dying. How do you move through this holiday season, experiencing life to the fullest, and also honoring and feeling connected with those who have died?
Here are a few ideas I have tried. I’d love to hear from you: how else do you acknowledge and honor your dead?
We always have some of my parents’ favorite foods. My dad particularly liked Planter’s Deluxe Nut Mix. He really adored the cashews, but he didn’t want to spend the money to upgrade to all cashews. He preferred to pick out the deliciously rare morsels, often leaving behind a plethora of peanuts, almonds or hazelnuts. In his honor, we repeat the ritual. Thank goodness, someone finally likes peanuts. Now all we need is a champion for the almonds. Did you know that memorial cashews have no calories?
I like to wear my mother’s black blouse emblazoned with silver sequins at least once during the season. When Mom wore this blouse, it signified she was going out someplace elegant. She accompanied it with a long black skirt and high heels. When I put on my ordinary black slacks and tie up my ubiquitous black tennis shoes, I imagine my mother shaking her head. “Don’t you have any better shoes, dear?” my mother prods me from beyond the grave. “A little lipstick would be nice.” That’s a lovely part of our post-death ritual: I hear my mother’s suggestions and I fondly remember her love of dressing up.
A dear friend from Baltimore died this year, way before his time. He loved movies and always called to give us his review of any new films. Particularly this time of year, when we go to the cinema, we think about our friend and discuss his possible opinion of the film. Which character would he have identified with? What would have been his favorite scene? How many stars would he have given the show?
I feel grateful that the people I love are part of my attempt to live an “epic” life. In fact, my dad inspired me to use the George Burns quote that ends this piece. I’m thinking about Dad and his dear friend Hank, recently deceased. They might be holding drinks, a little torchy jazz music in the background. Dad might lean over to Hank and say, “You know I’m feeling a little old today. I just realized that when I was a boy, the Dead Sea was only sick.”
There was a collective gasp as people imagined the horror of being allergic to chocolate. Then there were satisfying sighs as they tasted the melting sweetness of the brownies; Dan had re-created the recipe when my mother, disabled by Alzheimer’s, could no longer bake. Fortunately, Mom enjoyed sweets all her life and we always shared the story of these treats with her, reminding her how much we loved and appreciated her.
These brownies were one way my brother and I honored our mother during the holiday season.
Let go of the Past and Embrace a Plan
Linda Moore, PhD, psychologist and author of What’s Wrong With Me?, reminds us to separate our feelings from the facts. For example, a caregiver might think, “My mother’s Alzheimer’s is going to ruin my holiday,” instead of realizing, “‘My mother’s Alzheimer’s may make my holiday different.”
“Once you can understand the holiday celebration may be different, you can plan and orchestrate a gathering that supports a person who may be less mobile, less verbal and less able to hear and understand,” Dr. Moore explains. “The planning helps diminish the emotionality in the situation.”
Tailor the Celebration
“Caregivers must be willing to adapt to the condition of the person with dementia,” says Dr. Ethelle Lord, a pioneer in Alzheimer’s coaching. “If people with dementia still enjoy opening gifts and seeing all the decorations, then go for it. If they no longer recognize the decorations/gifts, simplify their celebration.”
Tailor their holiday to meet their needs, while finding ways to honor your own holiday traditions.
“Many people with Alzheimer’s can relate to the sights, sounds, and aromas of the holidays,” says health and lifestyle expert Stephanie Stephens. Stephens felt her mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, still knew that “something was special” during the holiday season.
For Stephens, the holidays brought forth a mixture of joyful and sorrowful emotions. She comforted herself by remembering the many Christmas mornings of her childhood. She reviewed old photos from holidays past and held on to the memories, cognizant that those days were gone and this was now.
“Cherish your memories and find comfort in the spirit of the season,” she advises.
“If your relative with dementia is in a long-term care home and it’s difficult for them to move about, take the party to them,” suggests Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. For a signed copy, contact Rainy Day books: 913-384-3126
Please learn more from and about these wise people.
As we move into the holiday season, Ron and I think often of our parents who went through their last holidays with dementia: my mom Frances and his father Frank. We wanted to share the season with them in ways that felt safe, comfortable, and honoring so we gradually developed these tips. Recently, we shared them via email and had such a great response we also want to share them with you.
Several people wrote, “These tips are good for anyone, not just those with memory loss.”
What great wisdom–to treat each person with the tenderness and consideration that we often reserve for someone going through a physical or emotional illness.
We’d like to share our tips and we’d like to learn from you: what other suggestions do you have for helping people feel connected at gatherings?
Eight Steps to Help People with Dementia Feel at Ease during Holiday Gatherings
- When you’re in a group, help the person with dementia feel safe and comfortable by having a trusted friend or family member stay beside him or her, explaining the proceedings and fielding questions from others, as needed.
- Encourage people to say their name and maintain eye contact when conversing with the person who has dementia.
- Make sure the person can come and go from the group as needed. Create a quiet space where he or she can rest — or appoint a caring person to drive your loved one home when he tires of the festivities.
- Have something special for them to look at, like a family photo album or a favorite magazine.
- Choose background music that is familiar to them, music of their era played in a style they resonate with.
- Prepare a few of their favorite foods.
- When talking to them, don’t correct or contradict or try to pull them into the current reality. Simply listen carefully and let them talk.
- Appreciate them for who they are right now.
Here’s to a holiday seasons filled with grace, gratitude and generosity.
Normally, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, a time our family gathered together at my Kansas City home. But that November, my stomach clenched at the thought of our traditional Thursday evening meal.
My mother had Alzheimer’s and the holiday would be different. I felt alone but of course I wasn’t: there were 15 million family/friend caregivers helping the five million Americans who have dementia.
I’d been through my initial storm of denial and grief. I felt I’d been coping well with Mom’s diagnosis, focusing on offering my father extra support and trying to flow with Mom’s now spotty memory and personality quirks. But a pre-season sadness invaded me in October and I found myself dreading the alleged festivities. How could we have our usual holiday dinner, take our after dinner walks, play Scrabble and Hearts and Charades without Mom’s participation? How could we enjoy going to movies and plays when Mom was having trouble focusing and sitting still? And how would Mom react to the situation: would she feel uncomfortable and out of place? Would Dad feel protective and anxious? And more important, what would we have for dessert! Mom was legendary for her chocolate and butterscotch brownies, date crumbs, and bourbon balls. No store-bought cookies would compare.
As I stewed over the prospect of a depressing Thanksgiving weekend, I remembered the vows I had made: I had promised I would try to stay connected to Mom throughout her Alzheimer’s journey. And I had promised to see the gifts and blessings and fun in the experience.
So I began thinking: if the holiday is going to be different, why not concentrate on making it different in a creative and connective way? Here are some ideas I used to make the holiday work for me.
- Acknowledge my feelings of loss and grief. I wrote them down and shared them with a few friends. Just expressing myself made me feel stronger.
- List what I would miss most during the holiday season. My list included cooking with Mom, eating her brownies and rum balls. I asked my brother, who’s a terrific baker, to make some of our favorite sweets and I set up a place in the dining room where Mom could sit next to me while I chopped mushrooms and peeled potatoes.
- Create an activity to give our holiday a new focus. We created a simple holiday scrapbook called, “The Little Kitchen that Could,” complete with a family photo shoot and a playful script.
- Appreciate my blessings. We started our Thanksgiving meal by asking everyone to name one thing he or she was grateful for. I continued my gratitude practice throughout the holiday season, either alone or with others via telephone and social media.
- Take extra good care of myself. I treated yourself as I would a friend who’d suffered a deep loss.
- Set up a lifeline. “I’m worried about melting down,” I told my friend. She urged me to call anytime for encouragement and reassurance.
These six steps helped me enjoy my holiday and appreciate my mom just as she was. Our holiday was “different” but it was also wonderful.
Q 4 U : How have you adapted your holiday expectations?